Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

The Catastrophists

The first time Maude Lacey steps into traffic it’s an accident. Maude is thirty-two, with a complexion and frame that could only be described as cobwebby, and is, aside from the general stuffiness that affects everyone who lives in the city long enough, healthy. She is walking home from her job in a gallery downtown—where she sits at the front desk and people slender as cigarettes don’t speak to her—when the car hits her, metal meeting bone, her body bending like a piece of deck furniture in a hurricane. She has four broken ribs, all on the left side. The doctor says she is lucky. And, for the first time, she believes she is.

Maude had been a nervous child. Not merely nervous, her mother liked to say, but baroque in her concerns. They had a symphonic structure, with movements and motifs.

Take war, for instance. It wasn’t that she was afraid it would happen in some distant black-and-white country, like the photo slides she was shown in history class. She feared the bomb she knew was coming for her, that would blow back the trees, bleach the land bare, sear the shadows of loved ones into the earth. She feared the moment of impact, splitting her apart like the hull of a doomed ship. She feared surviving it, being definitively alone. Even the everyday could be tinged with brief horrors: someone lingering in the aisle of a darkened theater had a weapon; an empty hallway during classes at school meant easy pickings; a flash of lightning could be an arrow to her head. Her enduring safety made her feel silly and ashamed. What had she done to deserve it?

Or take sex. Maude’s education in that regard had been strictly abstinence-based. Sex was an act of ruin. Ruined parts, reputations, lives. Willing partners were either dubious or duplicitous. Diseases and illegitimate children were the blind bargain of being charmed. Maude watched the birthing videos shown in class like an eclipse: indirectly. They were never told how to prevent this, aside from not doing it at all. She took this to heart more than most of her peers. When she finally lost her virginity at age nineteen she had to ask the boy if it had really happened. She’d been expecting a more definitive pain.

It was in the wake of that dull throb that Maude began to test the boundaries of her other anxieties. Not to prove she was brave so much as to prove she wasn’t fragile. She moved to a bigger, more vulnerable city. She roomed with people she’d never met before. She walked home alone at night.

These were things all adults did; deep inside she knew that. But the dread of sudden catastrophe never left her: the fear not of one thing going terribly wrong, but of everything else not going right. Until she wakes up in the hospital, haunted by the ghosts of shrieking tires, hearing how lucky she is.

▴ ▴ ▴

Maude has a boyfriend, Linus Roark. They met via an online dating app, which she only joined after concluding that the absolute worst that could happen if she matched with someone was that he would murder her. And really, there was an equal chance of this happening if they met at a friend’s party or through work instead. This was just something you risked, dating men. So she agreed to meet him, even though only weirdos had names like Linus.

Their first couple dates were mutually unmemorable, but the third had been at a winery owned by an elderly couple that was on the same hill as an active training ground for the Army. Their sips of watercolor-red blends were accentuated with rat-a-tat gunfire, pauses in conversation elided by someone else’s violence. Maude kept flinching at the sounds, and Linus would pull her into the side of his body, enveloping her in his foresty musk and heat, a little terrarium of intimacy. On the ride home she kissed him impetuously as he was driving, snuffed danger ringing in her ears, and was a little disappointed when the car didn’t stray from the road.

They have been together three months when the accident happens, so Maude is taken aback when he shows up at the hospital, concern wringing his features. It seems a devotion outsized to their time spent together. Then again, she’s never had a relationship that’s lasted this long.

But Linus has. He was just pulling into his driveway when the hospital called and immediately reversed his car back out. He considers himself a loyal man, one that can be depended on. Some men shine at weddings or when they meet the parents; he shines in calamities. When asked by someone behind a desk or holding a clipboard if he’s family, he never hesitates to affirm it, and he affirms it now. This has gotten him in trouble with girlfriends before, but Maude doesn’t seem to mind, or at least doesn’t object. The left side of her body is cupped in a plaster cast, shielding her like a wing on a statue.

“Will you sign it?” asks Maude, and he tucks his name underneath her armpit. The pen tip feels like a promise.

Because she wasn’t texting when the accident happened, she gets a settlement from her insurer. After paying off her hospital bills, she leaves her job; for a few years, at least, she can be someone who buys art instead of someone who sells it. As her bones begin to heal, she wonders what it might feel like to break other ones.

▴ ▴ ▴

Two days after Maude gets the cast off, she moves in with Linus. Five days after that she steps in front of a Subaru. She hasn’t even finished unpacking her boxes yet, unable to lift books or kitchenware from their cardboard depths, put them in their proper place. But such things can wait. They will all be there when she gets back from the hospital.

“I’m sorry to see you again so soon,” the doctor says, bewildered, but Maude is eager to get the diagnosis. She had stepped perhaps too gingerly into the path of the car, but still it threshed through her, slowing only after it made impact, the face of the driver a screaming smear. Her legs, when they strapped her into the stretcher, were continentally bruised. But only the right fibula is broken. It’s not as complete a rupture as she’d hoped.

Linus is at work when he gets the news. He’s an orthodontist and spends his days coaxing the unruly teeth of adolescents into alignment while whistling along to the local classic rock station. There is nothing that satisfies him quite so much as tightening a brace just as a guitar riff kicks in. He knows for many people it’s mystifying, even objectionable, to imagine looking at someone from this angle. But he likes the funhouse quality of it. How quickly the changes between appointments are apparent to him and how agonizingly slow for the patient. It makes him think he’s privy to the body’s secrets.

Maude, however, is endlessly confounding to him. He’s angry when he arrives at the hospital, though he’s not quite sure why or where to direct it, agitated and excited by the bright lights, the white coats, the convulsive neon of the monitor. He wants an explanation for such a disastrous, continuous harm to her.

“How did this happen?” he asks, but rather than answering, Maude hands him the felt-tip pen, knowing that he will take it. He wheels her home the next morning.

▴ ▴ ▴

Maude never used to like taking baths when she was younger, imagining the filth of the day gathering around her like worshippers at a phony idol. But with Linus she begins to enjoy the ritual. The way he tests the water with his elbow before lowering her in. The little cat scratches of the cloth against her skin. How he lingers over her ribs, still tender, tracing the hollows between each one. This too is a way of marking her, not as something he owns but something he keeps.

Linus likes making love to her with the leg cast. At first he struggled with the cumbersomeness of it, how it chafed the mirror side of his body when he pumped into her. How difficult it was, once the act began, to shift or change positions. How few positions were open to them to begin with. Until one night, when he pulls her to the edge of the bed and stands while entering her. He holds her by the ankle, the pulse of his thumb pounding against the scrawl of his name. When he looks down at her face, her open mouth, the pink tunnel inside it reminds him, oddly and wonderfully, of the enjoyments of his work. Her fingernails dig into his ass like she’s clawing a melody out of him.

Seven weeks after her second accident, Linus brings up a diamond ring when he bends down to pull out the bath plug. “Buried treasure,” he says, and Maude accepts her good fortune. One week later, another insurance settlement arrives.

▴ ▴ ▴

Marriage is not something Maude had considered seriously before. She came of age in the era of O.J. and Lewinsky, those twin scandals conflating in her young mind so that after her mother explained to her what oral sex was, she began to believe that engaging in it led directly to your husband murdering you. Once a cheater, always a cheater, her mother intoned. This in turn led Maude to think of marriage as a game that could only be won through deceitfulness. Looming large over all of this was the continued and unexplained absence of her father, whom she has still never met, not even after her mother passed away when Maude was twenty-four. His apparent disinterest in her entirely fed into her suspicion that she would always be unlovable, and that all romantic partnerships were destined for damage.

But those are before fears. She and Linus live in the after now.

“What scares you the most?” she asks in bed the night after her cast is removed. His hand is resting gently on her newly freed calf, fingertips idling over the skin like a pianist at his keys, mulling over what to play. It’s the most intimate thing she’s ever asked him, though he doesn’t know that.

“Sometimes, and I’m sure you don’t like me saying this, sometimes I’m scared that you won’t come home in…” He drifts off, distracted by the sharp bite of Maude’s overgrown leg hairs. They’re darker than her head hair; they remind him instead of her pubes, except more spread out. Like a field rather than a bouquet.

“One piece?” she finishes for him.

He laughs and she laughs too.

Later, after they’ve had sex for the first time in weeks without any confinement, she turns over and whispers, “Don’t you want to know what scares me the most?” But Linus is already too close to sleep to turn away from it.

The next day Maude trips into a Cadillac.

▴ ▴ ▴

Perhaps there are some who would see Maude’s behavior as a sort of test for Linus. A gauntlet they both must run to prove something to one another. After all, he’s everything she has. But neither of them sees it that way. Maude isn’t thinking much about Linus when she walks into the street. It’s for her. After her mother finally succumbed to the cancer that had been picking off her organs one by one, Maude carried a great fear for six years, one she thought she’d never shake. Of a body rebelling against its better interests, a body that had lost the will to care. A body that ate itself. But now she knows there’s no reason to be scared.

Linus, though he would never say it aloud, simply believes himself lucky enough to have met an unusually unlucky girl. He has always cared too much. It has been his great failing in past relationships. But Maude will never find him overbearing. For once his worries match the circumstances.

They get married at city hall so Maude doesn’t feel too self-conscious about the wheelchair. Her hip was shattered, pieces of a jigsaw puzzle thrown into the air. It’s been patched together with screws and plates; she has to be wheeled around the metal detector. But Linus kneels during the vows so that he can look at her and kiss her without Maude having to crane her neck. And the most recent settlement allowed her to upgrade the dress. She is wreathed in pearls. They flash like baby smiles in the light.

They wanted to order a bottle of wine for the reception from the place where they had their third date. But it seems the owner has since died, the grapes shriveled up. The gunfire, though, continues to ring out.

With the rest of the money they move into a bigger place. It is so big that they sometimes lose sight of one another. They buy things just to make it seem less empty. They begin to feel satisfied in ways they hadn’t expected, or believed possible. Every night Linus uses a sponge to wash Maude. They do it standing up in the kitchen; she grips the edge of the marble counter, not yet strong enough to stand on her own. The cast she wears reminds Linus of a diaper. They have not been able to fuck since the accident so he makes love to her knees, her breasts, her elbows, the little notch at her throat. When he bends to reach her belly button he can see his signature, hovering right where a day of the week would on underwear.

“Do you think,” he ventures one evening as they lounge in the living room in robes, “that your accidents would prevent us from having kids?”

“I hadn’t thought about that at all,” she says, taken aback. Truthfully, she’d never thought about having kids of her own, not since those health-class videos all those years ago. Not just because of the pain of birthing them, but the fear of what she might pass on. Now she imagines their baby emerging with dents in its head. She imagines their disappointment when it doesn’t live up to its potential.

At her appointment the next morning, Maude’s physical therapist says she’s making great progress and the cast can be removed in a week.

▴ ▴ ▴

They have sex with such vigor and force that they discover new corners of their bed. Maude gets pregnant so quickly she suspects a conspiracy against her. As though Linus’s little swimmers knew this might be their only shot.

A great shuddering comes over her. She finds her body racked by chills at night, then some days too hot to touch. She feels like a snake that can’t wriggle from its skin, trapped in a casing that no longer wants her. She is only a few weeks along but already she can sense the formation of the baby inside her, cells bonding together, limbs sprouting, tiny fingers feeling along her uterine walls like a darkened cave. She begins to hate having Linus’s hands on her. She misses the solidness of metal.

Linus knows something is wrong but he doesn’t want to name it. Instead he tries to reassure himself by talking with the women in his office.

“Not everyone enjoys being pregnant, right?” he asks Roberta, one of the hygienists, while they’re on their lunch break. Roberta has three children, all boys. She’s grateful that her job will allow for free dental work for them. Her eldest came in to the office two years back after a classmate hit him in the mouth with a hockey stick.

“I loved it,” she says through her bite of yogurt. “No reason to keep doing it if you don’t. Besides, once you’re holding them, you kinda forget about all that.”

“There must have been something about it that bothered you,” Linus presses.

She dips her chin, cocks her eyebrow, a what would you know about it kind of look.

He thinks about calling his mother, but she’s still mad at him for not inviting her to the wedding.

“Did you pick names out ahead of time?” he asks.

Roberta shakes her head. “I’m too superstitious for that.”

Linus likes Eleanor for a girl, Graham for a boy. They have a dignity to them. He’s always suspected his own name signals weakness to others.

That’s probably when it happens, even though Maude doesn’t know anything about his conversation with his coworker, about the names he’s chosen. She just feels the collapsing in her stomach, a little landslide, and then the curdled gelatin in the toilet bowl. She spends the rest of the day in bed, feeling guilty and rotten but most of all relieved.

▴ ▴ ▴

Though deep down Linus knows it’s not Maude’s fault, the fact that he can’t be sure, the fact that he’s even considered it at all, makes him feel he must leave. Maybe not forever, but for now, is how he puts it to her. She says she understands, and she does. Something has finally broken that cannot be mended.

A sadness overwhelms her, as it hasn’t since her mother died. The rooms without him open onto one another like a hollow, unending throat. Maude wanders around like something lodged in it. In the silence she can hear her bones creaking; it brings her no comfort to know that even if she stopped walking, stopped moving altogether, even if she buried herself in her bed, her body would continue to heal on its own, reconstruct itself from memory like a policeman’s sketch.

She begins to grow wary of the outside world again. It’s become more aggressive since her childhood, gnashing at her with its teeth. It’s all sounds, sounds, sounds. Once she runs out of settlement money, she stops going to her physical therapist. She stops answering the phone, though it never rang much anyway, pulling the cord from the wall. She stops answering the door, smoothes a piece of masking tape over the peephole. She draws the curtains, dims the lights. She sets the television to cable news, lets herself cycle through it like laundry in a washing machine. There is always some new disaster. There is always some cruelty she couldn’t have imagined. There is always some expert who thinks they know what they’re talking about. She stops eating.

Maude never had an answer to the question she’d asked Linus, about the one great fear. But she remembers what her mother would say: dying alone. Dying alone in an empty apartment, discovered only when the neighbors caught on to the smell. All that was left of her just an inconvenience to someone else. This isn’t Maude’s greatest fear but she still would like to avoid it. She knows what she must do.

In the end her mother died in hospice, saying her good-byes before giving a nod to the nurse who injected her with the final cocktail. In some ways it was ideal. A death that was not a calamity but a gift.

▴ ▴ ▴

Linus has been away from the apartment for seven weeks when he’s struck with the sudden urge to return. A tremor passes through him as he leans over his three o’clock, causing his tiny metal mirror to clink against the boy’s teeth in a way that makes both of their eyes widen. “It’s all right, Travis,” he says. “Twevohrr,” the boy corrects around the fingers in his mouth. Linus shakes the feeling off; there’s work to be done. The hygienist reaches over to turn the radio up, drowning out the rest of his thoughts.

He’s been staying in Roberta’s spare room. The boys swarm around the house like pale bees, mouths open, hands grabbing, bodies pulsing. He’s bewildered by them; they seem ignorant of their mother’s care. Food materializes, messes are cleaned as if by spirits. The one whose smile he healed is always popping his falsie out at meals, baring a broken picket fence at him. He’s been going to see vacant apartments with a broker, but he keeps finding something wrong with them.

The unease follows him to his date that evening, which Roberta set up for him. He has met with one or two other women before, having reactivated his online dating account. But, much like the apartments, he is always finding something wanting with the women. Like the one sitting across from him in this dim wine bar, for instance. She has a cascade of curls that meringue in the candlelight. She drinks exactly two glasses of Sancerre before saying she’s hit her limit. And he can tell already, despite her kindness, that she will never have any use for him.

“How long were you married?” she’s asking.

“I’m not sure,” he says, because he isn’t. He never measured his time with Maude in days or weeks or months. How long it had been, how long it would be. They were bound by a more interior alchemy. The fading of a bruise. The purling of a bone. The way they sought one another’s faces around plaster impediments.

The woman is looking at him strangely, her lips twitching, leaping, a match that won’t quite spark.

“Is everything all right?” he asks. He knows this will get back to Roberta somehow. He doesn’t want to be a disappointment to her.

She sighs, collapses a little in the shoulders. “Yes, yes,” she says, “it’s just, my ex-husband used to forget our anniversary too.” He has not disappointed her then. Merely reminded her of other past disappointments.

“I’m still married,” Linus tells her. But that turns out not to be a disappointment either.

▴ ▴ ▴

The apartment is dark but familiar. He steps into it like childhood, a cautious tiptoe. They can hear one another breathing but don’t yet know where the other one is. He drapes his coat over one of the kitchen chairs, kicks his shoes off by the couch. It’s where they make sense, where they’ve always made sense. He’s been foolish to try and take them elsewhere. He’s loosening his tie, unbuttoning his cuffs, turning into the bedroom, and there she is.

The curtain has been opened and the moonlight hits the white mortar of her body, encased from the neck down in a cast. She has been seated on the bed, two pillows tucked underneath her head to elevate it. Her hair is spread out like a sunburst; it’s grown long and unruly. The legs too are up in slings that have been hung from the ceiling. Her eyes move toward him but nothing else. Her jaw has been wired shut, glinting like an alligator grin. He takes a seat on the edge of the bed, touches his finger to the pulp of her left pinkie toe, the only other part of her unsheathed.

“That tickles,” her eyes say.

“I missed you,” they say.

He feels so small beside her. He wants to curl up against her hardness. He wants to serve her entire gourmet meals through a straw. He wants to lick her clean like a cat. There’s a pen on the side table, and as he reaches out for it her eyes follow. He holds it up, examines it, uncaps it and touches his finger to the felt tip, luxuriates in this moment, not wanting it to end. Time stretches out before them like a golden road. It might take years for her to recover.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is published by University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA from New York University. Stories of hers have been honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a notable mention in the 2011 edition of The Best American Short Stories. She was born in Bellevue, Washington and grew up mostly in Iowa, but currently makes her home in Brooklyn.